I really, really liked Luke Hodorowicz’s Banished when it released a year ago. Not only was it a fun and unique take on city building and survival gameplay, but it also represented a truly remarkable achievement for a single developer. This was no simple barebones experiment or proof-of-concept. This was a fully polished, engaging and unique game.
I certainly don’t mean to grade Banished on a curve for its remarkable origins, because the game can defend itself quite well. It’s by turns engaging and relaxing; tense and soothing. It has good mechanical complexity and a truly lovely visual aesthetic. All in all, it was the first city-building game to really connect with me since Sim-City 2000. But of course, it was not perfect.
I say “was” because things have changed since February ‘14. The mods came to town.
But let’s rewind to ye olden days of 2014. Like I said, I really enjoyed playing Banished on release, but as my playtime racked up, some niggling problems became apparent.
First let’s talk about what worked: the game does a tremendous job keeping the early hours tense, full of both interesting and meaningful decisions. Every choice to expend resources will impact your city’s welfare in some way, big or small. Figuring out how each decision affects your townsfolk is immensely gratifying. Since you cannot control them directly, your town becomes something akin to an ant-farm. You can merely set your citizens up for success, you can’t force it upon them. But unlike the virtual ant-farms of Sim-City, these ants have names.
This seemingly minor detail helps give your town an excellent illusion of life; it’s not hard to project emotions onto your little subjects, especially as they fall to the misfortune of your mismanagement. You can watch family dynamics play out as residents shuffle around the houses you’ve built, or you can learn who is most effective at their job by following them around for a few tasks. Although I’m sure the AI is not particularly sophisticated, it excellently accomplishes its goal of making the residents feel like people. Population is not a number, it’s a series of names that appear in my events log. “A child named Rosalinde was born.” “Alfredo the stonecutter was crushed by a rock.” “The reserve of food is low.” “The reserve of food is low...”
Balancing the short-term needs of the settlement with its long-term growth was, and continues to be, the real exciting draw of this game and the reason I’d recommend it so highly. But as your city grows, the excitement diminishes. You become less likely to form those intimate connections with your subjects because you have too darn many of them to keep track of. But worst of all, it doesn’t take that long for you to simply run out of content. At about 6 hours of gameplay on the base game, I’d built a city that had every single type of building offered. There were no new resources to manage, save expensive and erratically-available variations on food and livestock. There were no new directions to expand in... The prospect of continuing that city was simply “more and bigger.” It occurred to me that regardless of how exciting and unique my city felt at the start, it now probably looked exactly like every other city ever built in Banished. It was as if the game had ended hours ago and didn’t even bother telling me.
So that was where I left my opinion of Banished: excellent with small caveats. When taken as the accomplishment of a single developer, it feels like a truly incredible achievement, but that did not mean it was a perfect game. Just one I’d happily recommend, especially to gamers with a taste for city building and resource management (yum).
With this in mind, I booted up Banished on a whim last Friday to unwind after a particularly punishing section of Dark Souls II. It had been a long time since I’d played it, so I was surprised to see a category on the title menu for Mods. A quick trip to reddit got me a short list of recommendations, and a bit more research had me ditch that list for the simplest option: the Colonial Charter mod. After perhaps the most absurdly easy mod installation process I’ve ever encountered, I was ready to go.
Let’s get this out of the way: “wow.”
The Colonial Charter mod is extensive, incorporating many smaller mods while also adding its own distinct flavor. It results in a game that not only keeps everything that made me fall in love with Banished in the first place, but also answers nearly every criticism of the base game I could think of.
The first change you’ll notice is the expanded starting options and new map types. Unlike the base game which always started you as a “banished” group of exiles, you can now choose to play as nobility, arriving in a newly formed colony with a randomized set of resources giving you more options in the game’s early hours. Or, you could choose to play as missionaries starting in a fenced-in parish house. The most interesting option to me was the “Adam and Eve” starting scenario, where you must found a town with only one man and one woman. Already the variety of setups is worlds away from the base game’s “easy-medium-hard” options, and yet each variation only serves to add an interesting new wrinkle to the game’s excellent foundation.
The surprises don’t stop once you’ve begun playing. If you’re like me, you’ll probably spend the first half hour of play simply trying to wrap your mind around all the new resources and buildings. For example, a preservist’s will help store your extra food, but they need glass. A glassmaker needs sand, which comes from a shore house. You can choose to pursue this, or you can take the simpler route and ferment your surplus food into alcohol. You can build a harbor and send ships out to harpoon whales, then use the blubber to make candles. You can grind grain in a windmill, then use it to bake bread in your bakery. You can press olives into olive oil. You can turn flax into rope. You can establish a “back alley” in your town and trade for black-market items. You can decorate. Fences, walls, gardens, statues, trees, bushes... I could go on. The point is, it’s a lot of new content.
It ultimately feels as if I’ve returned to the game after 3 or 4 major content expansions, with all the quality and functionality that entails. Think Civilization V with both Gods & Kings and Brave New World. The mechanics and scope of each gameplay addition feel perfectly suited to the game; there is simply so much more of it. A player is in no danger of exhausting every building in a single playthrough, and even if an overachiever were to do that, there’s still plenty of fun to be had in beautifying your town and watching it hum along.
At the time of writing I’ve only had the chance to examine this one particular mod, and I do intend to stay vigilant for anything else new and exciting in the Banished mod scene. But for now, I simply couldn’t be happier with this game. It’s a perfect example of modders taking something quite excellent and making it extraordinary, and all for the low, low price of “free.” Thanks, modders.